When I got pregnant, I made myself a promise: I would not let having a child interrupt my commitment to travel. My travels have come to define me, each experience contributing to the story of who I am and what I believe. Every place I’ve visited has woven its way into the tapestry of my life.
I promised myself I’d continue adding to my tapestry, regardless of how different my travels would look once I had kids. It was also important to my husband and me that we bring our children around the world so they could begin collecting their own experiences at a young age.
It was with this mentality that my husband and I found ourselves bringing our daughter on an unforgettable 11-day adventure to Latvia and France this summer. Unforgettable, except for the fact that she’s only one and a half and will, in fact, forget the trip.
When I told people we were taking our daughter overseas in the weeks leading up to our vacation, most people responded with notes of excitement and encouragement. One person told me my decision was bold; many others, brave. Some asked if we’d ever consider leaving her at home. One person asked if she’d even remember it, noting the expense and hassle of traveling with a child and wondering if it would be worth it.
I’m here to tell you it is.
Memories good and bad, big and small, are delicate pieces of thread. The weaver may not remember every single thread she brings into her creation, but each piece contributes to the beautiful, intricate whole. Taking your children to new places enables them to jumpstart their own collection of threads, and the more places they go, the more textured their tapestries will become. When they are older, they may not remember the specifics of their adventures, but the individual threads will always remain.
After doing a little research, I learned that children can remember events as early as their first birthday. Once their brains reach the developmental phase in which they begin to formulate long-term memories (typically by adolescence), those early experiences will begin to disappear. This means that today my daughter might actually remember playing with children who spoke all different languages, which could influence choices she makes tomorrow and ultimately shape her behaviors and decisions. By age six, while the specific memories will likely be gone, the effects of her different experiences will be lasting. Memories are not concrete, but experiences weave themselves deep within the soul.
A common worry among parents about traveling with children, specifically to places in different time zones, is what to do about their sleep — how kids will react to interrupted schedules, time changes, and unfamiliar sleeping environments. Parents have reason to worry about this. Adjusting to an eight-hour time difference after nearly a day of travel is hard. It is disorienting. It disrupts any semblance of a routine and eradicates all hopes for predictability. But it is worth it because children are resilient and adaptable, and I’ve never been more confident in this than I was on this trip.
I think routines are good for children’s development, as they create predictability and confidence, making things like naps and bedtime slightly easier. But the real world is not always predictable, and children won’t always have confidence in what they are doing. Real life is missed bedtimes and cranky, overtired children. Real life is delayed flights and lost luggage. As parents, we spend so much time trying to make life as comfortable as possible for our children that we end up protecting them from things they may not need protecting from. But what does that do for them besides create a false sense of reality? So the belief that taking a child on a trip is too disruptive is, in my opinion, futile.
Travel is disruptive, but so is life. Life is loaded with surprises, and providing our kids with opportunities to power through life’s difficulties equips them with some of the many tools they’ll need in the real world.
As with most things worth pursuing, there are risks to traveling with your children. They could get sick, for example. My daughter did. She got so sick that we had to take two trips to the ER in Riga, Latvia, one of which resulted in an overnight hospital stay. This was not how my husband and I envisioned spending 24 of our precious hours overseas, but it was one of those situations we couldn’t control, which life has a tendency of throwing at you ruthlessly.
Once we came to terms with needing to stay at the hospital, we began to look at it as an adventure — the three of us crammed into a tiny room watching Frozen on a Kindle and eating convenience store sandwiches. It’s not something you’d ever plan for, but ultimately, things like this happen. Giving your children opportunities to practice their resilience and adaptability, as with an unplanned overnight hospital stay, can only help them in the future. And then, while navigating this discomfort and unpredictability, you find yourselves in a game room on the respiratory floor with a young Latvian boy who is singing, jumping, and doing the floss dance to get your daughter to laugh. And she does, and the laughter creates a beautiful memory.
The threads my husband, daughter, and I collected from the hospital are multicolored. Some are dark indigo. Others are canary yellow. But all of them contribute to the masterpieces each of us is building.
I recognize that being able to offer these types of experiences to my child is a privilege. One need not take an overseas trip for their kids to experience the benefits of travel, however. A quick drive to the other side of town where people might think, look, and act differently from you will have the same effect. If you live in the city, a trip to a rural apple orchard with hayrides and a petting zoo would bring a new experience to your child. If you live in the suburbs, you could take a tour around a nearby city via crowded public transportation. The importance isn’t how far you go, but how different life is in your destination. By bringing the unfamiliar into the sphere of your children’s familiar, you’re expanding their horizons and challenging their comfort zones — and airplane rides and time changes are not required.
Traveling with children will bring unexpected hurdles you’ll have to jump, there’s no doubt about it. But there are a few things you can do in preparation to help make the trip a bit more manageable.
Whether you take your child somewhere near or far, my suggestions for you are the same:
- Lose your expectations. There’s no way your trip will go exactly as planned. This is not only okay, but fun. You could use some excitement, too!
- Bring endless amounts of snacks. It’s great to expose your child to new foods, but ultimately it’s more important that they eat.
- Pack a few familiar items, like a blanket, stuffed animal, and a favorite book. These little reminders of home will do wonders to help them feel comfortable in the new places they’ll visit.
- Bring a couple of new items that will pique their interest while bored in the car, bus, or plane. Healthy distractions for your littles are your friends, folks!
- If you fly, it may be worth it to take your stroller and car seat. You can check all baby items for free, and having these trusty items will be a relief once you reach your destination. (Sidenote: liquids for your child are exempt from the TSA restriction of 3.4 ounces.)
- Get on your kid’s level. No really, crouch down and see what they’re seeing. It’s incredible how different their points of view are.
- Don’t fear the unknown; embrace it. You’ll all learn together, and the new experiences will add to each of your lives.
Like most family vacations, my family’s overseas was not perfect. It would have been far easier and safer to just stay home, where doctors speak our language and bedtime is always the same. And it is true that the memories my daughter created will eventually fade. But while she won’t remember splashing in the Baltic Sea or eating her first pain au chocolat, these experiences helped form the person she is becoming, and exposing her to different languages and ways of living can only broaden her understanding of what is “normal.” We so desperately need more people who practice greater acceptance, and I’m a firm believer that travel can be an impetus to it.
I’m not trying to raise a kid who remembers every incredible experience she’s had. Rather, I intend to raise a person who is open-minded and adaptable. Resilient and curious. Kind and thoughtful. And travel does this for my daughter, whether she remembers it or not.
This post originally appeared in Wit & Delight